James Leo Garrett and Sola Scriptura

Systematic Theology vol. 1, cover One day, wandering through the old Paraguayan Baptist Theological Seminary library, I picked a copy of a book almost in mint-condition: Systematic Theology: Biblical, Historical, and Evangelical by Professor James Leo Garrett, Jr. This was an author signed and dedicated copy of Volume I, First Edition. At that time, the book was published by Eerdmans; now, in its second edition, is published by D&F Scott Publishing, whose cover is the one you’re seeing at the top left.

All in all, Professor Garrett did an outstanding job. Even though I have, somehow, an unconscious prejudice against works of dogmatics made by my own church tradition (shades of Matthew 10:36?), Professor Garrett is to be thoroughly commended. I was impressed the most for his minute attention to detail, his painstaking, detailed, relevant and current research, and his fine analytical mind. In other words, this big two-volume book would be a welcome addition to any person interested in Protestant dogmatics.

More so, Professor Garrett has to his credit that he is consciously abandoning the path trodden by E.Y. Mullins in The Christian Religion in its Doctrinal Expression, where Mullins subjected Christian theology to the categories of the pragmatism of William James and the personalism of Borden Parker Bowne’s Boston School. Instead, Garrett tries a simpler approach that is closer to the Bible without the encumbrance offered by the “varieties of religious experience”.

Garrett’s discussion of revelation is in Part I of his first volume. Here the usual breadth in scholarship is present, although it is here that Garrett’s main mistake does show. He tries to survey different views on the theology of revelation held by different traditions of Christianity and shows a remarkable degree of competence in doing so; but the analytical categories employed are totally flawed.

The problem lies when Garrett tries to ascertain the criteria of revelation. He expounds several positions, and sola Scriptura among them, and mostly in the usual sense. But when he comes to discuss the criteria employed by the different traditions, he introduces something new: suprema Scriptura. According to Garrett, sola Scriptura denotes that the Bible is the one and only source of revelation, while suprema Scriptura is reserved for those traditions who, while using varying degrees of human traditions and customs, hold the Holy Bible as the normative source.

That might sound nice, but then I wondered, and I’m still doing it now after all these years, how it could be so, because this is not what sola Scriptura ever meant. Reformed confessions such as the Belgic confession are very clear in their statements (see articles 2, 3, 5 and 7): God makes Himself known through several ways, but the only way that can be deemed as “holy and canonical for the regulation, foundation, and confirmation of our faith” and “that all that man must believe in order to be saved is sufficiently taught therein.” But yet, as Calvin says,

[I]t may here be proper to declare, that I approve of those human constitutions only which are founded on the authority of God, and derived from Scripture, and are therefore altogether divine.
But as in external discipline and ceremonies, he has not been pleased to prescribe every particular that we ought to observe, (he [the Lord] foresaw that this depended on the nature of the times, and that one form would not suit all ages,) in them we must have recourse to the general rules which he has given, employing them to test whatever the necessity of the Church may require to be enjoined for order and decency. Lastly, as he has not delivered any express command, because things of this nature are not necessary to salvation, and, for the edification of the Church, should be accommodated to the varying circumstances of each age and nation, it will be proper, as the interest of the Church may require, to change and abrogate the old, as well as to introduce new forms.
(Institutes, IV: x,30 — Beveridge translation)

That is, the proper understanding of sola Scriptura does not exclude human traditions or customs on a prima facie basis. Human traditions might be used, and even with great profit, and still have the Word of God as the sole rule of faith and practice. From the use of the Latin phrase, sola Scriptura is suprema Scriptura. The distinction is moot.

So, where does Garrett make his mistake? I think the problem is that he is confused, and the confusion is double:

  1. First of all, I think that Professor Garrett confuses the sources of theology with the sources of revelation. Theology is human reflection upon God, with the aid and guide of divine revelation as its normative principle. This might imply that sometimes human thoughts about God are also sources of theology, and indeed they are; but obviously they are not going to define Christian beliefs. Professor Garrett, I think, treats sources of theology as sources of revelation and hence the mistake. Said in another way: Scripture is not the only source of theology; but it is the only normative principle.
  2. Additionally, is my opinion that Professor Garrett fails to distinguish the differences between general and special revelation. Again, the Belgic Confession tells us that God reveals Himself by two means: one, by Scripture (special revelation) and by “the creation, preservation, and government of the universe” (Article 2). That is, to recognize any kind of revelation outside Scripture would trigger Garret’s category of suprema Scriptura

Now, why did Garrett employed this false distinction? I don’t know, but I might offer a conjecture. Garrett might have done so because he is favorably disposed towards those traditions more in line with the so-called “radical reformation” (such as the Anabaptist churches). These Christians wanted to use Scripture not only as their only normative principle, but also as their only source of theological reflection. If one accepts the false sola/suprema dichotomy, then the traditions of the “radical reformation” might appear as better or more faithful heirs of the Protestant Reformation than those traditions of the “magisterial reformation”, such as the Lutheran and Reformed churches.

Or, perhaps, he just made a mistake and did not realize it.


  1. There may be yet one other possibility: the author simply failed to get across what he had in mind. I once spoke to a professor who had published a book and he recounted critiques which indicated to him the majority of his readers didn’t get what he was saying. Thus, he was working on a revision. His advantage was in seeking such critiques. I have no way of knowing whether that applies here, since I can’t get a copy of Garrett’s book.

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